Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 1)

In the first chapter of William Wright’s Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms, we are given a summary of various readers of Luther. The wide-spread misunderstanding of Luther’s teaching on the two kingdoms can be explained, according to Wright, by a series of commentators who continue to develop the erroneous position. Each building on prior secondary sources, the later readers of Martin Luther found themselves quite removed from his original position.

Wright begins with 19th century Lutheran, Ernst Luthardt. According to Wright, Luthardt is one of the first Luther-commentators to promote the idea of autonomy in the civil sphere. Wright states:

The natural world, in this case, would be autonomous or free of God’s law, so that people could make their own rules as they go about their lives and work. Moreover, this talk of spiritual life and Luthardt’s general emphasis on morality seem to demonstrate charges that Luthardt reduced Christianity to a matter of mentality or Gesinnung, to the interior of the Christian. This would clearly be contrary to Luther’s teaching.


Wright then goes on to show that this is actually an inaccurate reading of Luthardt. Due to the recent misuse of traditional terms like “natural law” and “reason,” readers are easily confused when they read Luthardt. According to Wright, “Luthardt declared that even though these institutions were under reason, they ‘are not really profane, but God’s endowment, order, and will, and God is present in the same'” (22). Wright adds, “The natural law, which humankind knows through reason, was God-ordained too.”

So while many modern readers might be tempted to lay the blame of the modern “two-kingdoms” view on Luthardt, this is actually not the case. Of course, this is not to say that Luthardt plays no role in the development of the modern doctrine. In fact, Wright goes on to show that Luthardt was influential on the next major thinker in this line of thought, Ernst Troeltsch. Continue reading

Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Intro)

I just got in my copy of William J. Wright’s Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms.  It looks to be quite valuable, and my plan is to blog a sort of summary and review of the book.  Wright is going to argue that Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms has been misunderstood in recent days, and he will seek to explain the true doctrine.

This is particularly relevant for my ecclesiastical community, because recently two reactions to Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms have come to prominence. Continue reading

New Book: Luther on Two Kingdoms

Y’all be sure to get this book now.

The description says:

Leading Reformation scholar William Wright contends that those who read Luther politically and see in Luther a compartmentalized approach to the Christian life are misreading the Reformer. For Luther, both kingdoms were under the laws and rule of God. Wright reassesses the original breadth of Luther’s theology of the two kingdoms and the cultural contexts from which it emerged, showing the influence early Renaissance humanism had on Luther. He argues that Luther’s two-kingdom worldview was not a justification for living irresponsibly or carelessly on planet earth. The book includes a variety of Luther’s writings that reveal what the Reformer did and did not intend by the concept. These writings show how the two kingdoms converge in all areas of life: family, church, and society.

Pope Gregory XIII on Queen Elizabeth I

Basilica, though moving slowly, is attempting to address the various positions on Church and State that existed in the Reformation times.  One thing that many people do not realize is just how radical the Roman Catholic position was regarding civil authority.  They taught that all civil authority (every “human creature” as Unam Sanctam says) must submit to the bishop of Rome.  In the event that this did not occur, the civil authority was considered to be null.  Pius V declared this of Queen Elizabeth of England.

This position became more extreme as powerful monarchs left the Roman church.  Assassinations were ordered and carried out (Henry of Navarre comes to mind, as well as the Gunpowder plot in England), and this was a consistent product of the Roman doctrine.  It is important to note that this was not some accidental phenomena carried out by confused followers, but rather it was the Roman position on civil authority.  Here is a quote from the Cardinal of Como, speaking on behalf of Gregory XIII’s papacy, written to the papal ambassador in Spain and meant to inspire Spanish hostilities against England:

Since that guilty woman (Elizabeth) … is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith… There is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit, especially having regard to the sentence pronounced against her by Pius V of holy memory.  And so, if those English gentlemen decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.

This is a breathtaking quote, but quite understandable within the Roman system.  This also shows you something of how the Reformation actually occurred and definitely explains why King James thought that the militant Presbyterians were Romanizers.

This Gregory was the same pope who celebrated the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by ordering a Te Deum to be sung in its commemoration.

Empire and the Early Church

Peter Heather, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire, describes the way in which the Christian Church came to enjoy its role as a public institution. He notes, “After Constantine’s public adoption of Christianity, the long-standing claims about the relation of the state to the deity were quickly, and surprisingly easily, reworked” (123).  Heather is going to refute many of the claims of Edward Gibbon, those that assert Christianity had a violent effect upon the empire.  This will also contradict the lesser known claims, though important to my ecclesiastical community, of Rushdoony in his The Foundations of Social Order. (It really is a terrible book.  Perhaps one day I will take the time to refute some of its claims myself, but for now I will simply say that it could hardly be farther from the actual way history unfolded.)

Heather describes the instillation of Christianity quite succinctly, and I will be happy to simply quote some of his best lines.  Heather writes:

At the top end of Roman society, the adoption of Christianity thus made no difference to the age-old contention that the Empire was God’s vehicle in the world…

This ideological vision implied, of course, that the emperor, as God’s chosen representative on earth, should wield great religious authority within Christianity.  As early as the 310s, within a year of the declaration of his new Christian allegiance, bishops from North Africa appealed to Constantine to settle a dispute that was raging among them.  This established a pattern for the rest of the century: emperors were now intimately involved in both the settlement of Church disputes and the much more mundane business of the new religion’s administration.  To settle disputes, emperors called councils,  giving bishops the right to use the privileged travel system, the cursus publicus, in order to attend.  Even more impressively, emperors helped set the agendas to be discussed, their officials orchestrated the proceedings, and state machinery was used to enforce the decisions reached.  More generally, they made religious law for the Church– Book 16 of the Theodosian Code is entirely concerned with such matters– and influenced appointments to top ecclesiastical positions.

The Christian Church hierarchy also came to mirror the Empire’s administrative and social structures.  Episcopal dioceses reflected the boundaries of city territories (some even preserve them to this day, long after they have lost all other meaning).  Further up the sale, the bishops of provincial capitals were turned into metropolitan archbishops, enjoying powers of intervention in the new, subordinate sees.  Under Constantine’s Christian successors, the previously obscure Bishop of Constantinople was elevated into a Patriarch on a par with the Bishop of Rome– because Constantinople was the ‘new Rome.’  Very quickly, too, local Christian communities lost the power to elect their own bishops.  From the 370s onwards, bishops were increasingly drawn from the landowning classes, and controlled episcopal successions by discussions among themselves.  With the Church now so much a part of the state– bishops had even been given administrative roles within it, such as running small-claims courts– to become a Christian bishop was not to drop out of public life but to find a new avenue into it.  If the Christianization of Roman society is a massively important topic, an equally important, and somewhat less studied one, is the Romanization of Christianity.  The adoption of the new religion was no one-way street, but a process of mutual adaptation that reinforced the ideological claims of emperor and state.


This imperial character of the early church cannot be overestimated.  This is how we came to have “ecumenical councils.”  This is why some councils won out over others.  This would be why there developed “Eastern” and “Western” branches of the Church, and this civil character of ecclesiastical organization is also why there could come to be “Byzantine” Christianity or “Frankish” catholicism.

This is also why the Protestant Reformation could happen.  Different in so many ways, Martin Luther and Henry VIII both understood the role of princes in church polity.

Confessional View of the Magistrate

The Reformed Confessions represent something of a consensus on the role of the civil magistrate.  Here is a list of some of the more influential statements:

Tetrapolitan Confession-(1530 Bucer and Capito):

23- … They accordingly teach that to exercise the office of magistrate is the most sacred function that can be divinely given. Hence it has come to pass that they who exercise public power are called in the Scriptures gods… Therefore none exercise the duties of magistrate more worthily than they who of all are the most Christian and holy…

First Confession of Basel (1534 Oecolampadius):

8- God has charged governments, His servants, with the sword and with the highest external power for the protection of the good and for vengeance upon and punishment of evildoers. For this reason, every Christian governement with which we desire to be numbered, should do all in its power to see that God’s Name is hallowed among its subjects, God’s kingdom extended, and His will observed by the assiduous extirpation of crimes.

First Helvetic Confession (1536 Bullinger and others):

26- Since all governmental power is from God, its highest and principal office, if it does not want to be tyrannical, is to protect and promote the true honor of God and the proper service of God by punishing and rooting out all blasphemy, and to exercise all possible diligence to promote and to put into effect what a minister of the Church and a preacher of the Gospel teaches and sets forth from God’s Word…

Geneva Confession of 1536 (Calvin):

21- We hold the supremacy and dominion of kings and princes as also of other magistrates and officers, to be a holy thing and a good ordinance of God… Continue reading

Theocratic Corpus Christianum

It seems to me that much of modern Presbyterianism shares (unintentionally to be sure) significant parts of a Roman Catholic definition of the Church.  The Presbytery is considered a church, and the minister is not a member of his local congregation.  Furthermore, they forbid lay baptisms, and some even argue for an apostolic succession of elders.

This same problem is seen clearly in discussions on politics, as well as discussions on “the Spirituality of the Church.”  The Christian Reconstructionists, who thought they were “integrating” the spheres of Church and State, still bought into the basic presuppositions of the problem: that “Church” equals Visible Church stuff and that “State” equals something that begins outside of Church in need of influence by Church.  Thus their Christian state left us with a monarch, president, or voting committee who was subservient to the ministers.  The other side of the coin, the neo-Two Kingdoms doctrine, coming out of California (where nothing good ever comes! jk 😉 ), also fails, as it buys into the theory that there is even such a thing as a non-religious secular and that this thing is essentially just peachy. God, according to their view, is really only concerned with the visible church on Sunday morning.

What we need in order to avoid both pitfalls is to be able to preserve a notion of secular space, as in civil and “natural” or “created order,” while at the same time insisting that it is not in the least existing independently of God’s grace.  This doesn’t mean that the secular is dominated by the sacred, nor even by our notions of Church stuff.  Indeed a good old fashioned doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers,” vocation and all, should help us along the way.  In other words, our own Protestant history is our best friend.

Paul Avis explains the Reformer’s position like this:

It is essential not to think anachronistically of the Church’s dependence on the magisterial structure of society in the sixteenth century.  For one thing, the Reformers are not adumbrating a theory of the state at all (least of all, of the modern secular state): theirs is a view of society, not of the state; of Church government, not of political theory.  The background is the theocratic corpus Christianum of the medieval synthesis of Church and commonwealth.  The theory of the godly prince was not what it may appear to us to have been– an appeal from Chruch to state in what was essentially a religious matter.  It was an appeal from one officer to another within a single society, the Christian commonwealth.

~ The Church in the Theology of the Reformers pg. 132

Avis goes on to explain:

For the Reformers, these represented two aspects of one social entity.  In no school of sixteenth-century thought- except for some varieties of anabaptism- were Church and commonwealth actually opposed: they were distinguished but not divided.

pg. 138

The Reformers could say that the King was a legitimate minister of God, because they did not believe in a special priestly caste and because they believed in common grace, or perhaps better, they believed in the continuing integrity of creation.  The King was a true minister and if a believer, a true priest because of the universal priesthood of all believers.

In the case of a Christian King, the society simply had a believer-priest in a position of great practical benefit.  He could make sure that order was carried out.  In the case of someone like King James, he could also make sure that the professional theologians were kept tethered to the real world, where certain particular debates should take the back seat for the good of the country, which would then also be for the good of the Church.

We could summarize the distinction of duties by saying that the state protected the true religion and the Church distributed that religion.

To understand the Reformation you have to understand the godly prince.

Zanchi on the Godly Prince

The Protestant Reformers were known as the Magisterial Reformers, which means that they worked closely with their kings.  Luther appealed to the German princes to Reform the Church, and the other Reformers followed suit.  Different regions had different political structures, largely influencing the various churches’ polities, but all were agreed on the basic position.

Zanchi was an Italian Reformer who studied in Geneva and eventually made his way to the University of Heidelberg.  He has a lengthy discourse on the Godly Prince in his De religione christiana fide.  He states:

Chapt. 26- Of the Magistrate

V. The office of a godly prince concerning religion is two fold and wherein it chieflie consisteth.

Now, sith the duetie of a godly prince, that is a magistrate, which hath a free power over any people and authoritie within his iurisdiction to institute and reforme religion, is twofold, which hee oweth to Christ and to the church in the cause of religion. One about such things as belong unto religion; the other respecteth men, which are in his iurisdiction and sbiect unto him. For the first, our beleefe is that he should diligently take heede that by the pure word of God rightly understood and expounded by the verie word it selfe and according to the principles of faith (that which they call the analogie or rule of faith), religion may be instituted in his dominion or kingdome; or where it is instituted, may be kept sound and pure; or where it is corrupted, may be restored and reformed to the glory of God and salvation of his subiects. For this we read hath beene commaunded of God and of Moses, and ever observed of all godlie princes. Continue reading